Sorcerer – William Friedkin’s zero hour contract masterpiece

When discussing Blade Runner, Ridley Scott said, “It’s as bad to be ahead of your time as behind it.”

Director William Friedkin can sympathise with this.

In the early 1970s he was a filmmaker in synch with the mood of the nation. He revitalised the cop thriller with The French Connection in 1971, nabbing Best Director and Best Film among a five Oscar haul.

Two years later he reinvented horror cinema for the modern age with The Exorcist.

Then, in 1977 he delivered to American audiences Sorcerer, a film fundamentally at odds with a country aching to slough off a decade of uncertainty and corruption.

A loose remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 thriller The Wages of Fear and Georges Arnaud’s same-name source novel, Friedkin’s movie was too bleak for a nation hungry for the escapist thrills of Star Wars.

But, Sorcerer has aged well. Predicting the modern world’s volatility, arguably it has greater resonance now than upon first release.

This is a film with characters ripped from the headlines. The four principal players are Mexican hitman Nilo (Francisco Rabal), Arab terrorist Kassem (Amidou), corrupt French banker Manzon (Bruno Cremer) and Irish-American gangster wheelman Scanlon (Roy Scheider).

Facing crisis points in their respective lands, the men flee to a shanty slum in an unnamed Latin American country.

Kassem, Manzon and Scanlon sacrifice their identities entirely, adopting implausible Latin American names. Kassem and Manzon work in the gigantic oil plantations owned by an American corporation. Scanlon humps luggage at a local airstrip. None can afford a plane ticket that could get them anywhere else.

When an oil well explodes 200 miles away, the four men are recruited to drive crates of nitroglycerin through perilous jungle and mountain terrain to detonate it. Their reward is $10,000 apiece. If they survive.

For decades Sorcerer was difficult to find and dismissed as an example of 1970s superstar-director hubris.

Friedkin had no control of the film outside the US. Consequently, across the world it was heavily recut.

A character establishing twenty-four minute prologue sequence was truncated and surviving moments spliced as flashbacks later in the film, shattering a sense of the slum as an inescapable prison. For UK audiences this compromised version was retitled Wages of Fear and released on a double bill with King Kong rip-off The Last Dinosaur…

In 2014 Warner Bros. put out a handsomely packaged an American Blu-ray of Friedkin’s original cut, beginning a wide rehabilitation of its reputation. Now, forty years after its disastrous release, Sorcerer is available to buy on Blu-ray in the UK, courtesy of eOne.

And it’s a masterpiece of survival cinema. Ferociously intelligent, ambitious in scope, and boasting one of cinema’s all-time great action set-pieces.

It was also impressively prescient. Flawlessly directed by Friedkin and shot by cinematographers Dick Bush and John M. Stephens, Sorcerer’s depiction of the world disintegrating resembles the grim spectacle of modern news footage.

Following the cataclysmic oil well explosion is a scene of charred bodies being returned to the village where the four men are hiding. The reportage style urgency of this moment, which turns from grief to anger as villagers attack soldiers escorting the bodies, is both extraordinary and reminiscent of recent refugee footage.

A disturbing sequence, you can imagine bankrolling studios Universal and Paramount begging Friedkin to cut it. The scene does not advance the plot, but is central to Sorcerer’s theme of paradise corrupted. The oil company is biting deep into the lush landscape (a pipeline cuts through the country)… but discovers Eden also has fangs.

Speaking of corruption, Sorcerer is a perfect movie for anyone who has had the misfortune to work a zero hour contract job. The four men are trapped in an economic uncertainty now referred to as the “gig economy”. They exist pay cheque to pay cheque, breaking their backs for rice and beans in a local dive bar.

In driving the trucks loaded with explosives, they accept the ultimate zero hour contract. No benefits or support, little training, and their employment can be terminated without notice.

Also familiar to modern eyes are themes of international terrorism and dodgy banking.

Former documentarian Friedkin took his crew to Jerusalem for a scene where Kassem detonates a bomb in a crowded marketplace. Employing real locations and Israeli soldiers, the director also snatched moments from the aftermath of an actual bombing that occurred nearby when they were staging their movie version.

How hard was it to convince the studio execs that having an Arab terrorist, sympathetically presented, as a key character in a blockbuster budgeted movie was a sound idea? Particularly when his explosive skill-set comes in handy when the four men are on the road…?

Back in the 1970s the character of corrupt banker Manzon would have been an easier sell. Then, bankers were not routinely behaving like degenerate gamblers and bringing the world to the brink of ruin. But, in 2017, having a terrorist and a disgraced banker as half your lead quartet is bold indeed.

As is the film’s castigating of any institution. Scanlon’s cohorts rob a Catholic Church with mob connections. Meanwhile, a priest is officiating a wedding in which the bride has a vicious black eye. The message is clear: there is no community or family, only self-interest and a race to the moral bottom.

Sorcerer is forty years old, around the age Friedkin was when he took his cast and crew to three different continents for a ten-month shoot. What he achieved in the US, France, Israel, Mexico, New Mexico, and the Dominican Republic was ahead of its time. Literally, as in 1979 Francis Ford Coppola would be feted for going potty in the Philippines and producing the eye-popping Apocalypse Now.

There was method to Friedkin’s madness. He knew that to portray a world ripping itself apart he’d have to go to the places described in the script. That the elite restaurants of Paris, the grime of working class New Jersey and the slums of Latin America could not be replicated on sound stages.

Sorcerer impresses because its achievements were earnt. Actors don’t act, they react. The visuals are raw, not succumbing to the blandtitude of a bloated modern blockbuster.

A spiritual descendent is Nolan’s Dunkirk, which demonstrated that audiences are receptive to practical large-scale filmmaking. Although Nolan’s film lacks the moral ambiguity on display here – and presumably was made with cooler heads than the whirlwind mania reportedly commonplace on Friedkin’s movie.

Yet, that mania has given us one of cinema’s best set-pieces, as the trucks attempt to cross a rickety rope bridge during a violent storm. Difficulty shooting this sequence has become legend. The original river ran dry, to the bafflement of meteorologists. The production upped sticks and relocated to New Mexico at huge expense and then that river started running dry. So helicopters and hoses were employed to recreate a raging torrent the vehicles gingerly inch across.

Friedkin said this 12-minute sequence cost $3m, most of it not budgeted, and took months to complete. Both money and effort are there on screen. The bridge is a marvel of design, built on hydraulics with steel cables yet looking like it will explode in a shower of splinters at any moment. The trucks are beasts with formidable heft, buffeted on the bridge by the heavy winds. And there are the actors, either guiding the monstrous vehicles across or driving the rigs.

You don’t get that in a Fast and Furious movie.

Sticking with the Nolan comparisons, Sorcerer’s bold prologue recalls the reverse narrative style of Memento. The sequence, which runs almost a quarter of the film’s duration, plays as climaxes to four other movies.

Nilo kills his mark. Kassem executes a perilous, lethal mission. Manzon flees a life of luxury after his double-dealing is uncovered. Scanlon is wheelman for a high-risk heist that lands them almost $300,000 in 2017 money.

The chunk of Sorcerer south of the border is almost like the epilogue in Jim Thompson’s The Getaway. The anti-heroes have successfully fled, but find themselves trapped in an existential Hell masquerading as paradise.

It helps that a large section of the Dominican Republic sequence was shot by documentary cameraman Stephens after Bush left the project when he couldn’t find a way to light the jungle scenes.

This shift gives the film a different texture to the opening section, as the men plunge deeper into the heart of darkness. During the climactic moments a key character seems to have driven to a different planet (actually the mineral landscape of New Mexico’s Bisti Badlands).

One aspect that modern audiences may not even notice but which caused consternation upon first release is the amount of subtitling in the opening fifteen minutes. Cinemas were forced to put up signs outside the auditorium reassuring customers they hadn’t paid to see a foreign film.

Lastly, Sorcerer is an antecedent to the “difficult men” who would dominate American TV from the late nineties through to present day. Scriptwriter Walon Green had form here, having previously co-written The Wild Bunch. Scanlon, Manzon and Kassem have a roguish charisma we would see again in Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen and Walter White.

These are all hard to like characters, but despite misgivings you discover yourself involved with their predicaments.

Doing the film no favours was its title. Friedkin chose Sorcerer when listening to Miles Davis’ album of the same name (another example of jazz’s deleterious effect). The director said it later occurred to him a sorcerer was an evil wizard representing fate. His original title was the comedic sounding “Ballbreaker”. You wonder why he didn’t just go with The Wages of Fear.

Yet, the film attempts to live up to that evil wizard fate claim. The opening prologue has subtle touches linking the men before they meet and foreshadowing their quest.

Nilo kills his mark in Vera Cruz, Manzon’s wife comments on the quality of Vera Cruz lobster. A terrorist in Kassem’s cell is bundled into a truck after blowing up a building, in the Latin American slum burnt bodies are returned home by truck. In New Jersey, Scanlon pointedly notes a security truck being loaded with money.

During the rope bridge sequence, Manzon is attacked by the branches of a washed-away tree. Does this prefigure Friedkin’s scrappily likeable 1990 killer tree horror The Guardian? Probably not.

Still, a different title would have helped. As would original lead actor choice Steve McQueen, who agreed to do the movie if his wife Ali McGraw could tag along as “associate producer”. Friedkin refused, and Scheider was cast. Although Scheider is perfect in the role, Jaws was not a hit because of him and McQueen would have made greater box office noise.

Enough of the what-might-have-beens. Sorcerer is back and ready to be recognised as one of the 1970s’ finest American movies. It was Friedkin’s third masterpiece in a row after The French Connection and The Exorcist. He would never again scale these heights (although Cruising, Bug and Killer Joe are must-sees), but most directors would sacrifice a limb for such a run.

This is cinema’s great lethal truck movie (typically a phrase reserved for Duel). It is a rare case of remake improving on the original. It’s one hell of a ride.

But, don’t take our word. No less a personage than Stephen King has declared Sorcerer his favourite film of all time. Buckle up and find out why.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
iTunes Podcast: The Electric Shadows Podcast

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